Some Peace and Quiet

My Weekend in Harpers Ferry, WV

A Romantic Getaway

Everybody loves to hate Valentine’s Day. Whether you’re bitterly single or happily married, February 14th brings stress to all.

So this year, my boyfriend and I decided to skip the roses and chocolates and treat ourselves to a weekend away. Booking a trip on a college budget at the last minute was challenging, but we found a place on Airbnb in a quaint town with decent hiking trails in West Virginia.

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Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Channel

Harpers Ferry. The name rings a bell for most – perhaps just because it’s only an hour outside Baltimore. Maybe because it’s a popular destination for the casual kayaker – it sits on the convergence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers and borders both Virginia and Maryland.

But a brief history brush-up reminded me that events here were some of the first sparks of the Civil War. This was the home of a failed slave rebellion in 1859, two years prior to the start of the war. The arsenal in Harpers Ferry held the largest collection of weapons in the South, and on a cold October night, abolitionist John Brown (dubbed “a terrorist” by the History Channel) decided to raid it. Great plan – but unfortunately the slaves failed to take up arms, the rebellion was squashed, and Brown was eventually executed.

Fast forward a century and a half, and this is where I find myself Valentine’s Day weekend. We’re excited by the rich history, the small-town charm, and the breathtaking scenery. It’s one of the coldest weekends this winter, but we’ve brought our parkas and we’re ready to brave it.

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The Appalachian Trail, overlooking the Shennandoah River. Up ahead is Jefferson Rock.

 

It’s a cloudy Friday morning, and as we enter Historic Harpers Ferry, we immediately wonder if we have walked into a low-budget horror film. The charming village we were promised was a complete ghost town, its stores and restaurants all closed and its streets eerily silent.

Okay, maybe it was naïve of us to come to a tourist town during off-season, but we thought there’d at least be somewhere for us to grab a beer and some southern comfort food. However, after combing through Yelp and driving several loops around the town, we found the only things open were a greasy pizza place and an ice cream shop.

We hiked up the Appalachian Trail for a mile or so to a historic cemetery that contained graves dating back to the early nineteenth century. On our way back down, we stopped at the 180-year-old Saint Peter’s Catholic Church. Built in the Gothic style, its towering stone masonry makes it look like a cathedral plucked from the French countryside. The doors were locked, though, prohibiting us from exploring further. Looking around, we wondered if we were not supposed to be there, for we hadn’t seen another person in hours.

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Saint Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, built 1831

By the next morning, the temperature had plunged into the single digits. But we had come to hike, and hike we would. We climbed the Maryland Heights trail – about three miles – and the view was without a doubt worth the cold.

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A Florida native (me!) holds her first icicle.
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The view from Maryland Heights – well worth the climb.

Once this excursion was over, we loaded up the car and headed home; it felt as though we had exhausted the town in our mere thirty hours there.

A Waste of Talent?

It seems a pity that a place with such a significant history and awe-inspiring surroundings should remain desolate. With a population of only 290, it must be hard to keep business booming, but between its cultural significance and its unparalleled geographic setting, the area has so much to offer.

So why was Harpers Ferry so dead? A glance through the National Park’s Yelp page suggests we may have just picked the wrong time of the year; most other visitors raved about what a fun-filled experience they had.

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Harpers Ferry touts a successful ghost tour industry, and with good reason – this cemetery was very cool, but also creepy as hell.

I did some digging and found that a fire last July destroyed a significant portion of the town’s commercial holdings. Harpers Ferry has put a great deal of effort into publicizing the fact that it stands strong and remains open, and several renewal campaigns and relief plans have been launched. After our dreary weekend, though, it appears there’s still a long road ahead to recovery.

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“Are we out of the woods yet?”

History is ever-present, and the geography of Harpers Ferry is no different in February than in August – so why waste all this opportunity by boarding everything up? It’s no wonder we were the only visitors in sight; there was nothing to do! A successful tourism industry requires an atmosphere of hospitality, and while the landmarks speak for themselves, the town itself had no pulse. It lacked the character that such a rich place should have, and I felt we were cheated of the experience we may have gotten had we been traveling later in the year.

Maybe it’s a chicken-egg conundrum: no one visits during the winter, so why bother opening up? But maybe if things were open, people would visit. Regardless, Harpers Ferry needs a new vision. It needs to revamp its operations if it wishes to draw in tourists and give them a truly positive experience beyond the summer months.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that we didn’t enjoy our trip or appreciate what was there – there just should have been so much more. So maybe we’ll try Harpers Ferry again over the summer. Maybe we will see what all the fuss is about. If nothing else, it would be nice to get a view of the landscape when the trees have leaves and it’s not below freezing!

For more information about Harpers Ferry, visit the Harpers Ferry-Bolivar Historic Town Foundation.

Mary Kate Turner is a polka dot enthusiast and Baltimore-based beer lover.

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